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‘Chaos and Horror’: Vietnam vets remember Tet Offensive 50 years later

ARVN Rangers moving through western Cholon, 10 May 1968 (WikiMedia)

Jack Segal knew in January 1968 that the North Vietnamese Army was planning an attack.

Segal, then a U.S. Army First Lieutenant, was at Dau Tieng base camp in South Vietnam near the Cambodian border, he said. He’d heard reports of a significant increase of North Vietnamese soldiers crossing the border.

“So we knew something was up, but we certainly didn’t expect a countrywide attack,” he said. “We were just focused on our little piece of the world.”

Nor did Segal, a junior officer, or anyone else at Dau Tieng know when the attack would hit, he said. When the Tet Offensive came, rockets and mortars rained down on the base camp. The rate of fire was much more intense than the typical nighttime activity from North Vietnamese probing the camp’s thin perimeter. He and other officers worked to direct support to troops in the field while overseeing the base camp’s perimeter defense.

Tim Keenan didn’t have to wait for the attack. His Army company had been making constant contact with the North Vietnamese Army near Dak To since November 1967, he said. It only got worse after the Tet Offensive started on Jan. 30, 1968.

“We were into it then,” he said. “It was chaos and horror.”

Keenan said his company commander later told him they’d had more contact with the enemy between November and February than any other company in Vietnam.

Lawrence Bailey — everyone calls him Camp — was in Qui Nhon and nearing the end of his 18-month tour when the offensive hit. The Army machine gunner had patrolled Saigon’s streets during curfew for a year before going to the coastal town. He, too, knew the attack was coming and was guarding an outpost when Viet Cong guerrilla fighters hit.

“When they took over, we could start hearing explosions and shooting, we could hear it from where we were,” he said. “The first thing the Viet Cong did was take over the radio station in Qui Nhon and they started broadcasting.”

Bailey and others flew to Tan Son Nhut Air Base in Saigon, where he watched South Vietnamese pilots in Skyraiders spray ground attackers with gunfire. The fight took place near where he’d filled sandbags before. It was an eye-opener, but also exciting to watch.

The three men, all draftees in their early 20s then and in their 70s now, were among hundreds of thousands of U.S. military personnel taking part in the Vietnam War when the North Vietnamese Army and Viet Cong launched attacks all throughout South Vietnam.

By March 2, 1968, 1,744 U.S. servicemen were killed and many more were wounded, according to White House figures Ronald Spector cites in “After Tet.” That year would go on to be the bloodiest of the war as fierce battles continued after the offensive.

The barrage often is considered the beginning of the end of the years-long conflict, Northwestern Michigan College Humanities Instructor Tom Gordon said.

The offensive was a disaster for the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong, Gordon said. They were eventually beaten everywhere they were attacked, sometimes overnight. The hoped-for uprising of South Vietnamese against their government never came. And the North Vietnamese lost roughly a third of their 100,000-strong attacking force — tens of thousands of Viet Cong likely died as well.

North Vietnamese leaders were panicked, Gordon said. But in the U.S., televised images of the assault, and CIA agents fighting attackers at the U.S. Embassy in Saigon turned many Americans firmly against the war.

Bailey left Vietnam in mid-February 1968 after holing up in a Saigon hotel five blocks from the U.S. embassy with eight other soldiers, he said. The Military Police stuck them there with a pile of rations, rifles, flak jackets and ammo — but no radio — and picked them up after a week.

“I still don’t know to this day why we were down there,” he said.

Bailey saw an empty Saigon littered with burned-out cars and bullet-strewn buildings as he rode to the air base. The image stuck with him after seeing thousands of people in the city’s streets before.

Another lingering sight for Bailey was finding an array of refrigerated caskets at Tan Son Nhut, he said — it still pains him to remember. He could tell they’d been used to carry soldiers’ remains home.

Death came so randomly to those who served, Segal said. He remembers Larry Stephan, his cubicle mate in officer candidate school. The two became close friends but were separated when Stephan went to Vietnam while Segal stayed behind to train for a parachute assignment that never came.

Stephan had been killed by the time Segal arrived five weeks later, Segal said.

Segal said he thinks of Stephan’s life as one unlived. He died at 19, and his was one of 58,220 U.S. soldiers’ lives cut short by the war. The conflict was one Washington’s leaders believed to be unwinnable.

Keenan’s battalion suffered 660 killed or wounded in eight months, he said. They would push up one hill after another, looking for North Vietnamese troops near where the Cambodian, Laotian and Vietnamese borders meet.

“When we went up a hill and we met resistance, we knew we were in deep trouble, but we knew we had to keep moving, we had to go up and take the hill, so that’s what we did,” he said.

Fighting was so intense that there was no time to grieve the dead, save late at night alone in one’s bunker, Keenan said. The battalion would move on, and the North Vietnamese would recapture what they’d lost a few days later. It didn’t take long before Keenan and others wondered: why are we here?

Bailey said everyone in Vietnam played a part and did the best they could. He believes the Pentagon kept the commanders from doing what they needed to do in the fight to stop the spread of communism.

The experience taught Segal to always test the assumption that those in command can truly see the grand scheme. He also fears the U.S. too often commits to Vietnam-like, gradually growing foreign interventions.

Segal went on to work for the State Department in Greece, Russia and Israel, he said. He later worked in the White House as director of nonproliferation and for Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia, then as political adviser to the NATO commander in Afghanistan. He now lives in Traverse City.

“I think it was beneficial to have someone, when someone says, we need to send troops there, that someone understands what that actually means, and there were occasions when that was definitely useful,” he said.

Keenan, of Traverse City, said he came back changed, struggling with relationships and finding himself impatient with people who were upset over trivial things. But he worked through it with the help of family, friends and counselors, eventually overcoming his fear of the woods to hike the entire Appalachian Trail. He also visited Vietnam with his son, and is now president of Northern Michigan Veterans for Peace.

Bailey, who became a contractor after the war and lives in Beulah, struggled with sleepless nights as well — he still has nightmares that he’s fighting the Viet Cong, sometimes in Chum’s Corner. And the smell of diesel sends him on a 12,000-mile mental journey.

Both Bailey, who’s on Benzie County’s Veterans Affairs Committee, and Keenan agreed any combat veteran who struggles with their experience should find a support group of other combat veterans. It’s too big a burden to handle yourself, Keenan said.

“For all the veterans that went there at that time, my hat’s off to them,” Keenan said.

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© 2018 The Record-Eagle (Traverse City, Mich.)

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.